Lars Walker makes an interesting point in his response to my comment on his review of the CBS crime drama series Elementary. I had observed that the Sherlock Holmes character in Elementary (CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m. EDT) owes more to the character Gregory House in the show House, M.D. than to the original Sherlock Holmes. Lars stated, “Yes, there’s a lot of influence from ‘House,’ I think. But perhaps even more from ‘Monk.’”
That’s a good point. A Monk connection had not occurred to me, probably because the tone of the two shows is so different. Monk was somewhat cheerful at times and included a good deal of humor, whereas Elementary takes place in a gritter milieu and has a more overtly serious tone. However, there is one major similarity: Holmes’s addiction is just as distracting as Monk’s obsessive-compulsive disease.
Yet there is a major difference between the two shows even in this regard. Monk’s illness is central to his brilliance as a detective and as a character (the old—and false and stupid, in my view—genius-always-involves-some-madness trope). In Elementary, Holmes’s addiction and emotional immaturity are merely window dressing, unnecessary elements apparently meant to make the character more interesting.
This they do not do, moreover. It’s a given in modern-day crime dramas that the central characters will be beset by personal problems, some of their own making and some imposed by circumstances. The fact that Holmes is a recovering addict hardly makes him unique in the annals of crime fiction, especially given Dr. Gregory House’s painkiller addiction, which was central to House, M.D., and the astonishing amount of alcohol consumption among hard-boiled detectives in the past three-quarters of a century. Likewise this Holmes’s emotional immaturity, which simply recycles an element of the aforementioned Monk, House, M.D., Psych, Common Law, NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigation Service (esp. the Anthony DiNozzo character), Law and Order: Criminal Intent, numerous other recent and current-day television crime dramas, and indeed a great swath of the hard-boiled detective tradition.
No, making a character immature and beset by personality problems hardly distinguishes a crime drama today. Creating a mature and sensible protagonist would be the truly trailblazing course today.
In this respect, the Holmes of Elementary is very unlike the original. Doyle’s Holmes was not self-absorbed or immature. He was intensely interested in others, if only as sometimes rather abstract pieces in the grand puzzle that is the world of human relations. His withdrawal into himself on regular occasions was in the service of concentrating his faculties on the problems before him—it was in service of others, then. The self-absorption of the Holmes in Elementary, by contrast, is of the common contemporary type: modern adolescent narcissism.
The show’s Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is, like the Watson of Doyle’s tales, largely a sounding board for Holmes. This Watson is significantly pricklier than Doyle’s, but she is not actively annoying, and as in the first couple of sets of Doyle stories she makes an effort to keep Holmes on an even keel, thus serving the same rescue function for Holmes as the great detective serves for his clients.
I think Elementary would benefit from the inclusion of some cheerful humor of the sort that pervaded Monk. After all, a show with the title “Elementary” hardly sounds serious, and the treatment of addiction in Elementary is superficial and lacking in insight. But it seems that they are now stuck with it.
Despite, all these shortcomings, however, Elementary is enjoyable to watch. The strength of the show is real, and it is from the same source that creates the fundamental appeal of all mysteries: the stories of distress and disturbance that lead to the murders the protagonist is called in to solve. In this, Elementary has it just right. A child abducted by a stranger, the parents in terror at knowing the likely consequences, the investigators under a deadline to find the abductor, intimations of the Stockholm Syndrome—these are real problems of momentous importance to those involved, and even though we’ve seen them treated regularly both in fiction and fact, we cannot fail to identify with and sympathize with the victims of such events, provided only that they are presented with persuasive plausibility and truth to human nature.
Elementary succeeds in doing that, which is why it is worth watching even if its protagonists are a good deal less brilliant than . . . one of the greatest fictional character pairs of all time.
Update: A reference to “alcohol assumption” in paragraph 4 was corrected to “alcohol consumption.” Never assume alcohol, for that makes an . . . well, you know the rest.